When it comes to transforming fashion’s status quo, Country Road is making sustainability their company culture and setting the tone for other retail giants to do the same.
The Australian retail brand has a clear 2025+ strategy with targets that seek to foster positive environmental outcomes, ethical sourcing, and diversity and inclusion. Their approach can be summarised by three key pillars: climate and biodiversity (including circularity), supporting Australian farmers, production and communities, and transparency.
Fashion is dependent on biodiversity. In October 2020, Country Road committed at least $600,000 over three years to The Biodiversity Project, a partnership with Landcare Australia and farmers, aimed at increasing biodiversity in Australia’s cotton-growing landscapes. The project paves a way for a new era of farming and brand-farmer collaboration while protecting soil health, providing natural habitats for local species, and improving water quality across river systems.
“Some of the farmers involved in the project highlighted that when native birds and bats return to their farms, they eat insects that would otherwise predate the cotton, reducing and sometimes completely mitigating, the need for pesticides,” says Fabia Pryor, the Brand Sustainability Manager at Country Road who has led the project.
According to Textile Exchange, climate action starts at the source of the materials we choose. In 2019, Country Road was the first Australian fashion retailer to partner with Oritain, to scientifically trace their Verified Australian Merino back to a small number of Australian farms, demonstrating responsible land management and animal welfare practices under the Responsible Wool Standard.
In January 2020, they extended their partnership with Oritain to include cotton, verifying the fibres used in their famous Heritage Sweat back to Australian cotton growers who support Better Cotton. Since then, the Verified Australian cotton range has expanded to include several styles across the business.
“We have responsible sourcing strategies across our key raw materials and prioritise traceable natural fibres. As well as our Verified Australian Cotton, Verified Australian Merino ranges, and Good Cashmere Standard® certified products, we also use organically grown and recycled fibres in selected ranges,” says Fabia.
Overproduction and overconsumption are the twin challenges standing in the way of fashion’s sustainability pursuits.
While many brands and retailers are quick to speak about their material innovations, very few are willing to grapple with what it will take to tackle fashion’s waste crisis and move towards a circular fashion model. Country Road stands out.
The retailer tacitly acknowledges that waste begins in the design phase. Fabia says, “To shape a circular fashion system requires a move away from a take-make-waste system to considered, timeless design. At Country Road we create high-quality garments designed for longevity, to be worn and loved for a long time.”
Additionally, Country Road is committed to careful forecasting to avoid overproduction and waste. Fabia adds, “We don’t always get it right, but we’d prefer to be more conservative with our forecasting and sell out of a product than overproduce it.”
The recent release of their Towards Circularity collection exemplifies their commitment to finding creative ways to minimise waste. The collection is made using 30% recycled cotton sourced from their off-cuts and faulty garments which are shredded, re-spun, and blended with virgin cotton to give them a new life.
The off-cut sorting process has created new jobs, with part-time workers now collecting the off-cuts and quality-checking them before sending them on to the spinner. Fabia emphasises that this epitomises the benefits of circularity – eliminating waste, reducing reliance on natural resources, driving innovation, and creating jobs. They also embrace recycled materials in other collections including recycled polyester, recycled nylon, recycled cotton, and TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™ fibres in the making of their Sateen Jean.
While transparency does not ensure sustainability in and of itself, it is an essential underpinning of a responsible business. Being able to trace back clothing allows consumers to make informed decisions. To support this conscious consumer culture, Country Road has published their list of factory locations.
As of July 2022, data shows they can fully trace 92% of products from their top 19 apparel suppliers, who make 84% of their total apparel.
As a pilot, Country Road launched its traceability rating across a selection of products from each division, including the Heritage Sweat to show how well they can trace a particular garment through the supply chain.
Storytelling is another valuable tool for sharing the journey behind the garments we invest in. One of the recent supplier stories they shared is the story behind their Australian cotton chino. Aside from telling the stories of their garments, Country Road is committed to amplifying the stories, and art and design talent, of First Nations Peoples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent. Fabia says:
We are conscious of using our platforms to share First Nations stories and we have a commitment to ensure First Nations stories are told by First Nations Peoples.
“In 2020 we launched a partnership with the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation (DAAFF). Through the DAAFF partnership, they support the National Indigenous Fashion Awards, offering a 12-month tailored mentorship to the Fashion Designer category winner.”
In 2020, this was Julie Shaw of MAARA Collective and in 2021, Denni Francisco of Ngali. Fabia, who also drives the brand’s reconciliation work, says that they have learnt so much from working with these independent designers in a “two-way learning process”.
In Baptist World Aid’s 2022 Ethical Fashion Report, Country Road has again received a score in the top 20% of brands assessed on its overall approach to ethical sourcing, environmental sustainability, and more. While there is work yet to do, Country Road engages with its suppliers, organisations like Baptist World Aid, and other brands on industry-wide issues to drive momentum not only for a fair living wage but also for safe and positive workplaces across the supply chain.
Together with their number one supplier, Kashion, they have introduced an app designed to amplify workers voices and allow employees to lodge workplace issues anonymously or using their name, with Kashion addressing and resolving issues raised in real-time.
Fashion has a key role to play in shaping a better future. The sector is one of the biggest emissions culprits. It is estimated that the industry is responsible for between 2-8% of global carbon emissions. And alongside the environmental concerns are extreme labour rights violations. Addressing this dual crisis will require us all to take action. But, retail giants must take the lead as the ones responsible for fashion’s biggest impacts.
Recognising this, Country Road has recently launched Australia’s first fashion industry Climate Fund, investing $1.5 million in grant funding to projects driving climate solutions in the Australian fashion industry over the next three years.
The fund aims to help accelerate and incubate projects, programs, initiatives, or products across the Australian fashion industry that need funding to execute their solutions. The annual grants program will allocate up to $500,000 in the first year.
Country Road’s primary mandate is to invest in projects with a positive climate impact that directly and indirectly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These could include projects that improve energy efficiency in the production of textiles or projects that provide consumers with accurate data on the emissions intensity of different fashion items, encouraging more sustainable fashion choices.
The Climate Fund acknowledges that climate outcomes can be achieved through nature-based solutions, the circular economy, innovative solutions, or First Nations-led practices. The fund is also targeting projects which align with one or more of these sub-themes: biodiversity conservation to protect and restore natural habitats, the circular economy to reimage the textile lifecycle, unique and disruptive technologies shifting the face of fashion and projects or partnerships led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations.
While there is no such thing as being perfectly sustainable, Country Road is paving the way for others to join a journey toward a kinder fashion future.
- Country Road is the headline sponsor for the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards 2022, and will sponsor the Changemaker Winner with a R100 000 cash prize
- Images supplied by Country Road